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The Mystery of Providence

Category Book Reviews
Date October 7, 2021

Readers of the past few issues will know that this is the 60th anniversary year of the first Puritan Paperbacks. Following the introductory article, we have had an article on each of the first three volumes that were published, and this month we are looking at the fourth: John Flavel’s (c. 1630-91) The Mystery of Providence.

Flavel’s work is based on Psalm 57:2: ‘I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfils his purpose for me,’ and following an introduction we have three sections to the book; Part one, the evidence of providence; Part 2, meditation on the providence of God; and Part 3, application of the doctrine of providence.

Reading any author, it can be helpful to know the circumstances in which they wrote and the experiences that shaped their lives. As you read Flavel on the providence of God, remember that this is a man who lived through some of the most tumultuous times of English history. He saw the English civil wars, a king executed, and a monarchy restored. He was ejected from his church in 1662 and then further removed from his people by the Five Mile Act in 1665, subjected to intolerance and persecution for his non-conformity. This is a man who had the ignominy of a crowd of the townspeople of Dartmouth carrying his effigy through the streets to a bonfire to be burned. But Flavel also lived to see the Glorious Revolution with a restoration of non-conformist freedoms, and in the sermon series that followed his new-found freedom (published as England’s Duty) it was observed that ‘there was a remarkable pouring out of the Spirit when these sermons were delivered, a great number of souls having been brought home to Christ.’ In his personal life Flavel was well acquainted with grief, losing infant children and three wives (his fourth wife outlived him). So, when in the introduction to his work on providence he writes ‘how cheering, supporting and encouraging must consideration of these things be in a day of distress and trouble!’ we know that this is a book written not out of theoretical considerations, but out of real-life experience.

I thought that I knew a thing or two about God’s providence, about what the Bible teaches and how God works in our lives, but when I first read Flavel’s work I came to realize that I actually knew so little. There were so many things in my own life I had not really thought about and had taken for granted. I had never stopped to give thanks to God for the way in which he had ordered the different aspects of my life but reading Flavel changed that.

I am forever grateful that I was born to Christian parents, and Flavel reminds us that having that privilege is no accident but a providence of God: ‘let me beg you that you will take special notice of this providence which so graciously wrought for you; and that your hearts may be more thoroughly warmed in the sense of it’ he writes.

But for those who haven’t had that privilege he has words of advice too; ‘admire the grace of God in plucking you out’ and ‘learn from hence, if God give you a posterity of your own, to be so much the more strict and careful of family duties.’

Flavel covers most of life as he goes on to deal with conversion, employment, family affairs, our preservation from evil, and the ongoing process of sanctification. In all these areas of life, he shows how the way God works is itself the evidence of providence.

Part two of the book deals with meditating on providence. He lays out the duty for us to do this, followed by two practical chapters on how to meditate and the benefits that it brings to the Christian. There is valuable advice here and antidotes to what we might call mystical ‘Christianity’— Flavel writes ‘In all your observations of providence have special respect to that word of God which is fulfilled and made good to you by them. This is a clear truth that all providences have relation to the written word.’ The providence of God may ‘open doors’ in our lives that lead to good wholesome activities but also, the providence of God may place things in our paths that are tests for us; we need to remember to test all things against the written word, the Scriptures.

By the time we get to the last section, Flavel is in his element; he was a preacher and writer who always pressed home the applications of the Scripture teachings to his listeners or readers, and The Mystery of Providence is no exception. The last chapter is just two-and-a-half pages long and is very precious. He reinforces the advantages of recording our experiences of God’s providences in our lives and it has him exclaiming ‘O that Christians everywhere would set themselves to such work!’

Reading Flavel’s The Mystery of Providence gave me a whole new perspective on life, and I would encourage anyone to pick it up and read it—it may just change your life too!


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Originally printed in the October 2021 Banner of Truth Magazine.

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